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'The Artful Recluse' art show bears testimony to secret Chinese artists

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 10th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

If a work of art is created, and no one is allowed to view it - as it may fall out of line with strict, political constraints - does it exist at all? A new show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in Southern California is doing its best to redress this. Entitled "The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry and Politics in Seventeenth-Century China," the exhibit highlights the work of proud artisans who had to remain in secret.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to scholars, the figure of the recluse is omnipresent in Chinese art and culture. The recluse remains an enduring symbol of self-sufficiency, immortalized as the lone professor surrounded by scrolls, the fisherman with craggy cliffs as his witness.

"The Artful Recluse" show has gathered 60 paintings, scrolls, fans and poems from a period that featured the dramatic fall of the Ming Dynasty, which was around 1644 and the tumultuous rise - later dubbed the Chaos - of the Qing Manchu.

Works have been drawn from the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, six private collections from the U.S. and Taiwan, and five public institutions. The exhibit will also be exhibited at the Asia Society in New York next year.

In the decades before the fall of the Ming, the imperial court was in flux. Corruption, political intrigue and uncertainty inspired prominent scholar-officials such as Shitao and Bada Shanren to withdraw from public life in search of rural solitude. Trained in philosophy, art and literature, they retreated to mountain dwellings and became immersed in calligraphy, poetry, painting and the study of the masters, making the 17th century one of the greatest periods for Chinese art.

"This idea of reclusion was not new in Chinese art," she told China Daily. "This is deeply rooted in Chinese culture," Susan Tai, curator of Asian art at the Santa Barbara museum says. "Then later, when many of these men were in hiding as a result of their association with the Ming, their art reflected a sense of loss, frustration, despair and, ultimately, a sense of resolve.

"This art is about freedom and escape; it permeates the paintings."

Tai explains that the artist-recluses of the period were singularly concerned with their natural surroundings.

"For Chinese, reclusion means a retreat to nature," she says. "In Taoism, Buddhism and even Confucianism, you're taught that nature is where you find comfort - it's where your problems are resolved."

Peter Sturman, professor of art history and architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-curator of the exhibition, says that the art born of the political and social situation of the day resulted in a series of stunning artworks.

"The more we looked at this subject, the more we realized it was something vital to the time. For frustrated intellectuals, reclusion gave people a way to express their wish to get away from something and live this pure existence.

"There was a certain rhetoric of reclusion, in which very famous people prominently declared a desire to be recluses. And later, when thousands and thousands of people remained loyal to the Ming Dynasty and couldn't face the prospect of being under alien rule, reclusion became a real and necessary aspect of many people's lives. Some people committed suicide; some became Buddhist monks; many others disappeared into the hills," Sturman says. 

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